In 1998, John Hallberg picked up his first Appalachian dulcimer. He and some friends were in a shop on Howard Street in Ocracoke on North Carolina’s Outer Banks when he spied several instruments made by a local luthier (a maker of stringed instruments).
“They each had ducks [carved] on the scroll, and one of them had a jumping dolphin,” said Hallberg in an interview. “I thought, ‘I’ll get the jumping dolphin and next year I’ll come back and get one with a duck head.’ I went back a couple of years later. The guy who had made the dulcimers had died. All the duck dulcimers had been sold and now I’m on [a search] for those duck dulcimers.”
Hallberg, 53, of Jenkins Hollow in Sperryville, had never played the dulcimer before then, but easily got hooked. He’s never taken lessons, but says the dulcimer is easy to learn to play and he’s learned to play by ear. Twenty years later he owns what he calls one of the world’s best collections of Appalachian dulcimers, numbering more than 60 instruments.
He also builds dulcimers and plays with other local musicians. In fact, Hallberg and another well-known local musician, Forrest Marquisee, will perform together on August 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Central Coffee Roasters in Sperryville to kick off their new CD.
Now he has his sights set on establishing a dulcimer museum and has chosen the circa 1740s Estes Mill off Route 211 in Sperryville to house his collection. The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously at its August 6 meeting to approve Hallberg’s special exception permit to adapt the mill. The next step, he says, is to close on the property.
Was having a dulcimer museum a dream of his?
“I had the thought of doing an online dulcimer museum,” he says, “which I am moving forward on. Then I saw the for-sale sign on the Estes Mill. I had always wished someone would take it over and restore it. It’s all kind of come together in the last year.”
He expects the online museum to go live within three-to-six months and to have completed the mill renovations in a year.
A 20-year resident of Rappahannock County, Hallberg has built a reputation as a filmmaker as well as music maker. In 2015 he produced, directed and starred in the hour-long “Attack of the Flying Beagles,” which was shot mostly in Rappahannock and starred local acting talent. He’s produced several short films and videos that have been shown locally.
He also, along with Jen Cable in 1999, created the Smokehouse Winery, where he produced honey wines, ciders, and other Old World beverages.
But music seems to be his abiding love.
“My grandmother was from an old Charlottesville family and sang opera,” says Hallberg. “And my mother played keyboards and the cello.”
He was literally born into music: “My mother was playing the cello when her water broke with me,” he points out.
While collecting dulcimers, Hallberg has become a historian of the instrument.
“The Appalachian Dulcimer (or Dulcimore) evolved from the German Sheitholt, a folk instrument which made its way into the country in the early 1700s when William Penn welcomed Germans over to Pennsylvania,” he says. “The ‘Great Wagon Road’ (which turned into Route 81) carried folks down to the great wilderness beyond Philadelphia. The instrument followed and various tweaks to the form and construction were inevitable.
“The oral tradition that included the old story songs and ballads as well as fiddle tunes seemed particularly attuned to this new instrument in young America. Slightly different traditions developed such that different songs and styles were practiced just miles apart” throughout Appalachia.
Hallberg calls the dulcimer one of the country’s first non-native instruments. Although there is undoubtedly a dulcimer community, the instrument still maintains a low profile.
“This is partly because it’s a quiet, introverted instrument (by comparison),” he says, “and many times played in a solo atmosphere-either in performance or for one’s own pleasure.”
However, big stars play and have played the dulcimer — such as Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Hornsby, Cindi Lauper, Aerosmith, and The Rolling Stones.
Sometimes viewed as a simple instrument because of its ease of instant playing, it can also be a very complex one with different modes, tunings and styles which can include old-time, folk, bluegrass, gospel and roots, but also rock and experimental.